Basketball

2021-22 AAC Basketball Preview And Predictions

Marcus Sasser, Houston, Shooting Guard
(247 Sports)

After the American Athletic Conference received just two NCAA tournament bids last year (Houston, Wichita State), Kelvin Sampson’s Cougars won the midwest region, giving the program its first final four appearance since 1984. Weirdly enough, Wichita State actually won the regular season conference title despite being in the first four and Houston getting a 2-seed. As we look ahead to the 2021-22 season, expect a few other teams to challenge Houston and Wichita State at the top of the conference. Here’s a preview for the AAC and a look at how I think the conference will stack up by the end of the season.

11. South Florida

2020-21: 9-13, 4-10 AAC

Key Departures:

This could be a bit of a rebuild season for Brian Gregory’s Bulls. Not only are they coming off a 4-10 conference record, but they’re also losing five of their top six scorers from a season ago, all via transfer. Grad transfer David Collins, who led USF in scoring last year, has decided to play his final season of college basketball at Clemson. The Bulls also lost guards Justin Brown and Xavier Castaneda, forward Alexis Yetna, and their 7-footer Michael Durr, all of whom averaged over 8 points per game last year.

Key Returners:

Look for sophomore guard Caleb Murphy to take a big step up. As a freshman, Murphy played 24 minutes per game and averaged 8.3 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 2.9 assists. He’ll most likely be running the show for this USF offense. Outside of him, the Bulls aren’t bringing back a whole lot of production from last year’s squad. Center Russel Tchewa will take Durr’s place, while Jamir Chaplin will also play a bigger role. He averaged 16 minutes, 5.3 points, and 3 rebounds on 47% from the field off the bench last year.

Key Additions:

Grad transfer Javon Greene will most likely step into a starting role right away. At George Mason in 2020-21, Greene averaged 11.5 points, 5 rebounds, and nearly 2 steals per game. Jake Boggs is a guy who can provide a spark from the outside. He averaged over 10 points and shot 44% from three at UNC Wilmington last year. Other transfers to keep an eye on include forwards Jalyn McCreary from South Carolina and Sam Hines, who averaged over 10 points and 5 rebounds for Denver in 2020-21.

10. East Carolina

2020-21: 8-11, 2-10 AAC

Key Departures:

Losing a 1st team all-conference performer in Jayden Gardner won’t be easy to overcome. Gardner led the Pirates in scoring three years in a row and scored nearly 1,500 total points during that span. On the bright side, East Carolina returns four of their five leading scorers from 2020-21.

Key Returners:

This will be an experienced, upper-class led team, which is why I think East Carolina will win more conference games this year.
6-5 guard Tristen Newton is coming off a sophomore year in which he led the team in assists (4.2) and steals (1.2). He also added 8.7 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. Brandon Suggs will continue to provide scoring on the wing, averaging over 8 points per game in each of his first two years. Senior guards J.J. Miles and Tremont Robinson-White round out what should be a balanced scoring attack in the backcourt, while 7-footer Ludgy Debaut will start in the middle.

Key Additions:

The Pirates didn’t do much to address their thin front line. Instead, they brought in another guard in Wynston Tabbs. Tabbs is a transfer from Boston College who averaged 13 points last year, shooting 40% from three. Vance Jackson, a transfer from Arkansas, will most likely start at power forward. Jackson didn’t play much on a loaded Razorback roster, but will see the floor much more this year. Joe Dooley also brought in freshman guard Alexis Reyes, who was the fourth ranked recruit out of Massachusetts.

9. Tulane

2020-21: 10-13, 4-12 AAC

Key Departures:

Tulane lost their 2nd and 3rd leading scorers from a season ago, those being guards Jordan Walker and Gabe Watson. Walker’s absence will sting the most. The now-UAB Blazer averaged 13 points, over 4 assists, and nearly 2 steals per game for Tulane in 2020-21.

Key Returners:

Leading scorer Jaylen Forbes returns and will be the go-to guy once again. He earned 3rd team all-conference last year, scoring over 16 points and grabbing over 5 rebounds per game. Look for sophomores Sion James and Tylan Pope to play bigger roles in year two. As freshmen they combined for nearly 12 points and 8 rebounds per game. Power forward Kevin Cross is back for year three after putting up 6.9 points and 4.7 rebounds for the Green Wave in 2020-21.

Key Additions:

It will be interesting to see what UNC Asheville transfer DeVon Baker can bring to the table for Tulane. Baker missed nearly the entire 2020-21 season, but led UNC Asheville in scoring the previous two seasons. They also added LSU transfer Jalen Cook. As a freshman, Cook played about 7 minutes per game and averaged 3.1 points, going 7/16 from three.

8. Tulsa

2020-21: 11-12, 7-9 AAC

Key Departures:

The Golden Hurricane will have to move on without guard Brandon Rachal, their best player and leading scorer last year. Rachal averaged 15 points and earned 2nd team all-conference. Elijah Joiner, the only other double-digit scorer for Tulsa in 2020-21, is gone as well. Those losses won’t be easy to overcome.

Key Returners:

Guards Darien Jackson, Keyshawn Embery-Simpson, and Curtis Haywood all return and will need to step up big time without Rachal and Joiner. Jackson is coming off a 7.6 ppg, 4 rpg, and 2.4 apg year and shot 64% from the floor (73/114). 6-9 power forward Rey Idowu will be entering his senior season after averaging 8 points and 4 rebounds in 21 minutes per game in 2020-21.

Key Additions:

Frank Haith did some shopping in the transfer portal, picking up forward Jeriah Horne from Colorado and guard Sam Griffin from Texas Arlington. Horne was Colorado’s 2nd leading scorer and leading rebounder. He shot over 90% from the line and 40% from three. Griffin will also provide more shooting for the Golden Hurricane. He shot 39% from beyond the arc and averaged 13 points per game. Look for these two to play significant roles for Tulsa in 2021-22.

7. Cincinnati

2020-21: 12-11, 8-6 AAC

Key Departures:

The Bearcats may be entering a mini-rebuild here. Keith Williams, Cincinnati’s leading scorer last year, transferred to Western Kentucky. Coming off an all-freshman team season, forward Tari Eason didn’t last long in black and red. He transferred to the SEC to play for Will Wade’s LSU Tigers. Big men Chris Vogt and Rapolas Ivanauskus are also gone, leaving a thin front line for the Bearcats.

Key Returners:

First-year head coach Wes Miller does return some key pieces from last year’s squad. Even without Williams, Cincinnati will be strong in the backcourt, led by Jeremiah Davenport, David Dejulius, and Mika Adams-Woods. These three combined to average nearly 30 points per game last year, but that production will need to increase for Cincinnati to compete for a conference title. Look for Mason Madsen’s role to be bigger in 2021-22. He averaged 6.5 points in 17 minutes per game as a freshman last season.

Key Additions:

Wes Miller brings in 6-11 center Abdul Ado, a transfer from Mississippi State. Ado averaged 5.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game last year for the Bulldogs. He’ll likely start right away for a Cincinnati team in need of bigs.

6. Temple

2020-21: 5-11, 4-10 AAC

Key Departures:

Despite losing J.P. Moorman (7.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg), De’Vondre Perry (7.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg), and Brendan Barry (6.9 ppg, 45% 3-PT), the Owls return their top four scorers and could be a surprise team in the AAC this year.

Key Returners:

Temple will have one of the best backcourt tandems in the conference in Khalif Battle and Damian Dunn. Dunn averaged 13.5 points and 4.2 rebounds, while Battle led the Owls with 15 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. Playmaker Jeremiah Williams could have a breakout season. As a freshman, he averaged 9.3 points, 3.6 rebounds, and a team-leading 4.1 assists. At forward, Jake Forrester returns for his final year after scoring over 9 points per game on 57% shooting in 2020-21.

Key Additions:

Aaron McKie welcomes two 3-star freshmen (Hysier Miller, Zach Hicks) that were top-10 recruits in their respective states. They may not get significant minutes right away, but could be key pieces for Temple in the next few years.

5. UCF

2020-21: 11-12, 8-10 AAC

Key Departures:

Johnny Dawkins’ squad didn’t lose anybody who played significant minutes on last year’s squad. 6-11 center Avery Diggs transferred to Chattanooga, but he didn’t play a huge role for UCF, averaging just 9.9 minutes and 2.8 points per game.

Key Returners:

The Knights get back every starter from a year ago, including 5th year seniors Darius Perry and Brandon Mahan. Perry led the team in points and assists, while Mahan averaged over 12 points and shot 44% from beyond the arc. Sophomore Darin Green Jr. should only improve after earning AAC all-freshman team honors. Those three will lead what will be one of the best backcourt trio’s in the AAC this year. Another sophomore that could have a breakout year is 6-6 wing Isaiah Adams. He averaged 25 minutes as a freshman, scored 9.9 points and grabbed 3.9 rebounds per game in 2020-21. Guard Dre Fuller Jr. and forwards C.J. Walker and Jamille Reynolds return and will play key roles as well.

Key Additions:

To replace Diggs, Dawkins brought in Cheikh Mbacke Diong, a 6-11 transfer from UNLV who averaged 8.9 points, 7.4 boards, and 1 block last year. The Knights also welcome Darius Johnson, a 3-star recruit who was the 5th ranked player coming out of Virginia.

4. SMU

2020-21: 11-6, 7-4 AAC (lost in 1st round of NIT)

Key Departures:

The Mustangs will be without three of their top five scorers from last year, including 2nd leading scorer Feron Hunt. Hunt declared for the NBA draft and is currently in the G League. The other two are Ethan Chargois and Tyson Jolly, two grad transfers who went to Oklahoma and Iona, respectively. Two other transfers lost include guard Darius McNeill and F/C Yor Anei. McNeill and Anei combined to average nearly 14 points per game in 2020-21.

Key Returners:

Fortunately for Tim Jankovich and the Stangs, 1st team all-conference selection Kendric Davis returns. The 5-11 point guard led the AAC in scoring at 19 points per game and dished out nearly 8 assists per game. Shooting guard Emmanuel Bandoumel returns as well, a double-digit scorer and 36% three-point shooter last year. The 6-10 5th-year senior Isiah Jasey will need to play a bigger role with Hunt and Chargois gone. Jasey played 18 minutes per game last year, averaging 3.6 points and 3.8 boards.

Key Additions:

SMU brought in three lower-level D1 transfers that will play significant minutes right away. Twin brothers Marcus and Michael Weathers come in from Duquesne and Texas Southern, respectively. Marcus is a 6-5 wing who averaged over 15 points and 7 rebounds last season. Michael is 6-3, coming off a season averaging over 16 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals. Zach Nutall, a transfer from Sam Houston who scored 19.3 points per game last season, will only add to an already guard-heavy SMU squad.

3. Wichita State

2020-21: 16-6, 11-2 AAC (lost in First Four)

Key Departures:

Wichita State will no longer have their 2020-21 assist leader in Alterique Gilbert. Gilbert also poured in 10 points and 3 boards per game. Grad transfer Trey Wade will be an Arkansas Razorback this year after averaging 6.7 points and 5.6 rebounds for the Shockers in 2020-21.

Key Returners:

2020-21 AAC coach of the year Isaac Brown returns four of his top five scorers, which is why the Shockers could very well repeat as conference champions. That’s especially true when you have a guy like Tyson Etienne, who earned AAC Co-player of the year in just his sophomore season. Wings Dexter Dennis and Ricky Council IV both return as well. Council averaged over 7 points and 3 rebounds in just 15 minutes per game. He also shot 44% from three, and is primed to have a breakout sophomore season. Morris Udeze, the big man in the middle, will be back for his senior season. He averaged 10.3 points, 4.7 boards, and shot 60% from the field in 2020-21.

Key Additions:

Brown landed Joe Pleasant via the transfer portal. The 6-7 forward averaged 10.5 points and 5.5 rebounds for Abilene Christian last season. Two 3-star recruits will also join the roster. Jalen Ricks, a 6-6 guard with a 6-11 wingspan out of Oak Hill Academy, and 6-11 center Kenny Pohto from Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas.

2. Houston

2020-21: 28-4, 14-3 AAC (lost in Final Four)

Key Departures:

Unfortunately for Kelvin Sampson, he loses the Co-player of the year in the AAC (Quentin Grimes) and two other key pieces (Dejon Jarreau and Justin Gorham) to the Cougars’ Final Four run back in March and April. Houston also lost guard Caleb Mills, who transferred to Florida State. Mills only played four games last year due to injury, but led the team in scoring as a freshman in
2019-20.

Key Returners:

Junior guard Marcus Sasser will run the show this season after averaging 13.7 points and making 2nd team all-conference in 2020-21. He’ll be joined in the backcourt by sophomore Tramon Mark, who will need to be a significant producer without Grimes and Jarreau. He didn’t shoot the ball well last year, but averaged nearly 8 points in 20 minutes. Fabian White will likely take Gorham’s spot. He’s a 6-8 power forward who played 15.6 minutes per game and averaged 6 points and 4 boards. A player to keep an eye on is guard Jamal Shead. He played 10 minutes per game as a freshman but may step into a much bigger role in his 2nd year.

Key Additions:

Sampson snatched Texas Tech transfer Kyler Edwards, who could form a lethal one-two punch in the backcourt with Sasser. He averaged 10.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and shot 42% from three in arguably the best conference in college basketball. Houston added another guard in Taze Moore, a grad-transfer from Cal State Bakersfield. Moore led the Roadrunners in scoring the last two years and shot over 50% from three in 2020-21. The Cougars also bring in two 3-star recruits in guard Ramon Walker and forward Ja’Vier Francis.

1. Memphis

2020-21: 20-8, 11-4 AAC (won NIT championship)

Key Departures:

Penny Hardaway’s Tigers lost a few key pieces from their NIT championship roster, all via the transfer portal. Guard Boogie Ellis, a double-digit scorer in 2020-21, wanted a change of scenery and is now a USC Trojan. D.J. Jeffries, a 6-7 forward who averaged 9.9 points and 5.1 rebounds, transferred to Mississippi State. 6-10 center Moussa Cisse joined Mike Boynton’s program in Stillwater after averaging over 6 points and 6 rebounds his freshman year with Memphis.

Key Returners:

1st team all-AAC guard Landers Nolley returns after scoring over 13 points per game and shooting 39% from three last season. Their do-it-all man DeAndre Williams is back for his senior season. As a junior, he scored 11.7 points per game on 50% shooting. He also added 5.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 2.2 steals. Lester Quinones is another returner who will be a key piece to the puzzle for this Memphis team. The junior scored 9.5 points and grabbed nearly 6 rebounds per game. He’s a reliable three-point shooter as well, going 44/110 (40%) from beyond the arc last year.

Key Additions:

Memphis welcomes two of the top five high-school recruits in the country. One of those is Emoni Bates, a 6-9 stretch-four from Ypsilanti, Michigan. Bates averaged 32.4 points and 9 rebounds and was named 2020 Gatorade National Player of the Year. The other is Jalen Duren, a 6-11, 250-pound center who will take Moussa Cisse’s place in the starting lineup. With a wingspan of 7-5, Duren averaged 14.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and shot over 60% from the field last year at Montverde Academy in Florida. He and Bates will completely change the landscape of the AAC in 2021-22 and could lead the Tigers to a deep NCAA tournament run. Hardaway also brought in Josh Minott and Johnathan Lawson, two 4-stars who were the 44th and 99th ranked recruits, respectively. A couple transfers, including point guard Tyler Harris (Iowa State) and wing Earl Timberlake (Miami) could play significant minutes as well.

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